FTC clamps down on mortgage modification scammers

You’ve probably seen the pitches on TV and the Internet or found them stuffed in your mail: official-looking communications complete with logos and letterheads that look vaguely like those used by the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service and other federal agencies.

They are instead criminal enterprises posing as do-gooders who promise to get you out of the mortgage jam you’re in. They claim they can persuade your lender to cut your monthly payments, forgive all penalties, slash your interest rate and even get your loan balance reduced. If your lender won’t cooperate, they say they’ll perform “forensic audits” on your mortgage and convince a court that your entire loan transaction should be canceled because of technical mistakes in the paperwork.

Bogus firms always insist on getting your money upfront — often thousands of dollars — and then do little or nothing. But now the Federal Trade Commission is cutting off the main fuel supply for mortgage modification scammers: Under new rules outlined Nov. 19, the agency plans to ban virtually all upfront payments, institute mandatory disclosure rules and clamp new federal restrictions on lawyers who participate in mortgage modification schemes.

Under these rules, companies that offer mortgage relief will have to contact your lender or servicer and give you a written proposal describing the key changes to your mortgage terms that the note holder is willing to make before any money can be collected in advance.

Modification companies also will be required to make clear that they have no connection with any government agencies or program, and that you’re free to reject any offer from the lender, with no requirement to pay a fee.

The rule also prohibits modification firms from using one of their most commonplace and destructive ploys: They can no longer instruct clients to stop communicating with their lender or servicer. Many scammers not only urge unwary consumers to let them handle all negotiations but also direct them to stop sending in payments — or worse, to send all payments to the modification company. Typically that has the effect of rendering any modification with the lender or servicer even less likely.

The FTC estimates that bogus modification companies have stolen millions from unwary homeowners in the last two years. Ironically, there’s been a huge increase in the number of abusive schemes in the wake of the federal government’s efforts to create legitimate foreclosure relief programs. The FTC has brought more than 30 cases against these operations, but the agency has had no way to control the pervasive advance-fee requirements that are so costly to consumers.

Now, when that portion of the new rule takes effect Jan. 31, the FTC will be able to proceed against any firm that collects upfront fees without obtaining the required written proposals at no charge from lenders. It will be a litmus test: If a firm seeks to charge you anything or collects money upfront, it will be in violation of federal law and subject to harsh civil penalties.

The only exception will be for lawyers, who typically require retainers before they begin negotiating on a client’s behalf. They will be permitted to collect retainer fees for modification efforts but only if they deposit the money into “client trust accounts” under state bar regulations. Lawyers who charge advance fees also must be licensed by state authorities and be in compliance with state laws and regulations governing professional conduct.

Joel Winston, the FTC’s associate director of financial practices and a lawyer himself, said in an interview that “a disappointingly high percentage of fraudsters [in FTC loan modification cases] have been lawyers — they’re just fraudsters with law degrees.”

Nonetheless, Winston said, the agency recognizes that “legitimate practitioners” can play a valuable role in negotiating modifications for consumers, and the FTC doesn’t want to cut this off by banning upfront retainer payments outright.

kenharney@earthlink.net

Distributed by Washington Post Writers Group.